black motherhood: we sing when we dance. we dance when we sing.

And, Mary sang this song…

Luke 1:46

The very first time I tried to sing to my baby daughter, I opened my mouth and realized that I’d forgotten the words to all the old nursery songs. Even worse, I thought, perhaps I never knew them. 

And just what do you sing to a baby? Honestly, at the time, my jam (when I was amongst the saints) was Call on Jesus by Nicole C. Mullen. But amongst sinners (which was the crowd I preferred—better music?) it was Jay-Z’s I Just Wanna Love U. What’s a mother to sing? 

My mother wasn’t exactly lulling. She was all bass, rhythm and blues. She was soul and funk. Her musical canon included the likes of Aretha, Mr. Al Green and Marvin Gaye—to whom she was quite partial. She didn’t understand my Aunt Porky’s obsession with James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, but he was played too. “All that screamin’ and pantin’ over and over and over again…” Nada would sigh, rolling her eyes almost in tune with horns sounding between Brother Brown’s refrain “Make It Funky… Make it Funky… Make it Funky… Make it Funky…”. 

Music was foundational in our home. It was our sacred practice, if we had one. It was always playing somewhere in the house—a wide range of everything representing a wide range of happenings in our home, our neighborhood, and the great big ole world outside. And so while she didn’t sing to us, Nada danced for us, with us, and even at us. Parliament’s Flashlight, Chic’s Good Times, and Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell were all party-starters at the most random moments—while cooking, doing someone’s hair, driving, talking on the telephone, preparing to go out for the night, coming home from being out all night, cleaning the house, sewing, playing cards, barbecuing, or just plain sitting.

But did my mother ever sing to us? Surely not, at least not that I can remember.

Like mother like daughter, I dance for my daughter often. Boy do I dance for her! I dance with her—and yes in the grocery store and in the Target aisles, I dance at her especially if anything by Journey, ELO, any member of the Jackson family, Stevie Wonder, Christopher Cross, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Queen or Sly and the Family Stone pours out of the sound system. 

Starting a new tradition, I sing for my daughter like I sang over her that very first time I found our song, barefoot and swaying, cradling her in my arms: 

How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lie.
How deep is the ocean? 
How high is the sky? 
How many times in a day do I think of you?
How many roses are sprinkled with dew?
How far would I travel just to be where you are?
How far is the journey from here to a star? 
And if I ever lost you, how much would I cry?
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky? 

In the fields and in the streets carrying protest signs, from the choir stand and the pews, Black mothers have always sang. Our singing and our dancing always make the world cock its head to the side in confusion. When it can’t come up with an explanation, it cocks a gun right at our hearts and fires, spraying bullets of unworthiness, indignity, and violence. But from Sojourner Truth to Nina Simone to Tina Turner to Lauryn Hill to Beyoncé bringing us home—we still sing and dance like wind and fire. No one can stop us. No one can stop us. We know our children are listening. We see them watching.  

The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill 
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird 
sings of freedom.

From the middle of the living room with the table pushed back into the sofa and the rug rolled up, my mother’s hips move as she drops it low. Her eyes close and her fingers snap above her head. She sings, “Woooooo… This is my song.” She beckons me to dance, “Girl… you show me whatcha got… woooo girl… Git it girl. Git it, Marcie May. Do ya thang!!!”

This is her refrain.

*Irving Berlin, “How Deep Is the Ocean”
**Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”

Marcie Walker